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By Patrick Springer, Published March 03 2014

‘Buffalo King’ reigns: Documentary on historic figure wins film award

FARGO – Justin Koehler grew up on a ranch that was a 20-minute drive from the town of Philip, S.D.

The town was named for James “Scotty” Philip, now remembered as “the man who saved the buffalo.”

Koehler had never heard of the man when he was asked to film a wagon ride in the summer of 2011 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Scotty Philip’s death.

That project evolved into a documentary film, “The Buffalo King,” which will be screened Wednesday at the Fargo Film Festival as recipient of the festival’s Prairie Spirit Award.

After a crash course on his subject – he had just a month to prepare – Koehler, a filmmaker based in Denver, quickly came to admire Philip, who emigrated from Scotland at age 15 and became a cattle magnate, state legislator and influential businessman.

Most of the scenes in the 60-minute documentary were filmed during the five-day commemorative wagon train from Philip to Fort Pierre, S.D., a route spanning areas of Philip’s sprawling ranch.

Koehler’s camera lingers on the sweeping prairie, much of it little changed since Philip came to Dakota Territory from Kansas, where his older brothers had settled.

Commentators steeped in Philip’s life, including descendants, were on hand for the celebration. Their interviews provided most of the narration for the film.

Along the wagon train route, at a buffalo ranch owned by mogul Ted Turner, Koehler filmed buffalo grazing on a hillside, silhouetted against the setting sun, a scene providing the film’s most striking images.

“Those buffalo are direct descendants of Scotty Philip’s buffalo, which is pretty cool,” Koehler said. “It was just stunning.”

At the time of Philip’s death in 1911, his buffalo herd numbered almost 1,000, making it among the largest in the world. A handful of ranchers helped save the buffalo, but Philip’s herd was by far the biggest, Koehler said.

Before becoming a rancher in 1881, Philip tried his hand at prospecting during the Black Hills gold rush, serving as an army scout and driving freight wagons on the Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail.

Twenty years later, by then well established as a cattle baron, Philip bought a small herd of buffalo from a neighboring rancher, whose 83 buffalo descended from five calves kidnapped for preservation during an 1881 hunt on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

Philip culled hybrid offspring that had been bred by buffalo and cattle by the other rancher, Fred Dupree. Congress passed legislation allowing him to lease 3,500 acres for a buffalo pasture for $50 a year.

Soon Philip’s herd was large enough to become a tourist attraction, and became known far and wide. His nickname as “Buffalo King” came from a newspaper feature.

“He was a cattle mogul and that’s no stretch,” Koehler said. “He was one of the biggest ranchers in the U.S. He was a powerhouse.”

At Philip’s funeral, attended by a throng of mourners brought in by special railroad, some of Philip’s buffalo gathered just outside the cemetery of his ranch – a scene that, when Koehler heard the story, he knew belonged in his documentary.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

If you go

What: “The Buffalo King” screening

When: 9:15 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Fargo Theatre, 300 Broadway

Info: Single-session tickets $8 and $5 for students. Passes to parties and films range from $15 to $125. (701) 239-8385.

Online: For more information on the Fargo Film Festival, visit www.fargofilmfestival.org